A New Humanism: Part 30

The refined language of humanism and the native tongue

In the rich array of the places we build, distinctive and cohesive languages of forms and symbols can be found repeating over time and across cultures.  While ultimately derived from the biology we share, they differ because of the ways a person or a culture prioritizes a range of competing predilections – specifically, and in simplified terms, the fundamental conflicting human impulses to compete or cooperate – to be in control or to join forces – or to try to transcend human limits altogether.  They are typically and usefully sorted out as classical, organic, and sacred modes of expression.  In practice, of course, they naturally marry, merge, and overlap.  Each is a way we try to master our environment – to survive and prosper – and individually or together as a continuum, they are, in effect, a biologically-based native tongue of the places we build for ourselves.

The classical priority

Although the term “classicism” is used to describe specific, well-defined, codified styles, I’m using it here to refer to a broader, refined language of humanism, one that has been eloquently spelled out – and repeatedly refreshed – in words and structures over millennia.  Its basic principles of rationality, coherence, stability, balance, harmony, accessible symbolism and tectonic clarity – its concepts of order expressed in formal systems – are found underlying built environments in civilizations throughout the world. Most fundamentally they are found in representations of the order of society or the cosmos in places as different as ancient Greece and Persia, Egypt, Mughul India, China’s Forbidden City, Mayan Mexico and in global modernism’s victories of commercial power. 

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The great Egyptian Temple of Ammon at Karnak – sacred precincts conceived in terms of design principles we call “classical” long before our own “classical” era.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

Even the specific styles that grew out of origins in Greece and Rome have been in the contemporary architectural vocabularies of much of the civilized world for millennia, and the principles, as Sir John Summerson points out, were very much alive during the international Gothic “interlude.” In those years, when people from the forests and obsessed with light, produced new structural techniques and glass technology in a 12th-13th century “renaissance,” their cathedrals made possible incomparably powerful sensations of transcendence into harmony with a divine presence. Yet their basic forms were pervaded by classical symmetry, order, expressive structure and symbols.  And when our later industrial “International Style” was born, it was still grounded on classical disciplines. The basic reason, in architect Allan Greenberg’s succinct words: they are “rooted in the physiology and psychology of the individual human being” and they are filled with allusions to a human body.

Vincent Scully would likely add: rooted in nature, too.  In his words, “the Greek…set out to embody reality as he found it in nature and in himself.”  And classical principles exploit both the practical realities and the symbolic opportunities offered by the natural world – topography, the intrinsic qualities of water, wood and stone, and the sculptural impacts of sunlight.  Again, in typically eloquent Scully words about Greece, “…the landscape was one of the strings of the complex instrument they played.” The heroic landscapes of the gods were honored but translated into human terms.

Classicism has become a language of “civilized” places – a way of thinking that gives priority to the order and control needed to live together in large settlements and thrive.  It tends toward mastering nature by firm, distinctly rational human dominance – expressed in geometric disciplines, organized hierarchies, clear boundaries and articulated forms, with cohesive axial compositions and grids laid over a landscape.  And woven through the order are clear analogies to human bodies’ rhythms and moods – from austere Roman virtue to Baroque ecstasy – and the perception of proportions and subtle curves that enliven the details.  The result is a language that has a supple grammar and versatile vocabulary that can unify – harmonize – diverse forms, functions and purposes, at small and at very large scales.  And in practice, it has become a language of significant human events – arrivals, departures, and alliances – and the language of social order, of stature, authority, dignity, justice, government and knowledge. In that sense, it’s a language that, in Leon Krier’s words, can transcend a time and a place.

Classical order feels like an authentic expression of human values, predilections and successes, and it remains a living, global language, appearing again and again over six continents as the built settlements of new eras or new colonies have emerged.  It has been the first language, too, that is freely adapted to newly invented building types – like Sullivan’s pioneering Wainwright building, the great center-city railway terminals or grand hotels around the world.  Geoffrey Scott called classicism an “architecture of humanism,” and it is. But it’s clearly not alone.

The organic priority

A different resolution of the conflict between propensities – and the separation of human thinking and feeling – surfaces as a language often called “organic.” It’s implicit in Spirn’s, McHarg’s, and Alexander’s ideas.  In their minds, and many others’, the success of human mastery is found more in adaptations to – collaborations with – the momentum of natural systems.  And it is explicit, as well, in the mainstream language of America – as in residential marketing, where it often takes the form of the “picturesque” or romanticized nostalgia for pre-machine-age ways of life.  Frank Lloyd Wright and generations he’s inspired have described and demonstrated the underlying discipline.  In his words “organic architecture” originates in the specific imprint of the complex “life” lived within a building and its intimate “kinship” with the earth.  It incorporates a sense less of “owning” a place than “belonging” to it.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water”. Kinship with the natural world.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

While they may often be entangled in a battle-of-styles, the ideologies favoring classical or organic values, naturally overlap.  Both are in our genes.  And both are concerned with rationality, coherence, and human scale, using machine technology as a tool and not an expressive motif, but, instead, using the processes and structures of the natural world as metaphors and ornament.  Their common ground is evident in the way “classical” principles permeated Wright’s “organic” architecture, or the way the informal, organic English landscape styles succeeded, paralleled and were interwoven with classical traditions. And that’s a style still very much alive three centuries after Capability Brown and William Kent responded to mixed priorities – in this case a sense of living intimately both in harmony with and as the master of a cultivated, flowing, benign nature – with the sheep clipping the lawns.

The differences are clear in the dominance of what I call the more organic “geo-metry of ecology” – landscapes, buildings, and settlements that are likely to flow over topography with overlapping borders responding more directly to forms created by moving water, wind and growing things.  And they tend to exploit the local materials in less mechanized ways and use actual structure as the expressive language – in a sense their own vernacular – rather than classical overlays.  While they still tell stories of levels of control, refinement, self-assurance, and repose, the organizing messages are equally about open-ended growth and adaptation linked into continuing changes – a more ad hoc, site-specific, use-specific discipline.

In this connection, while Modernism’s science and industrial technologies had once seemed to erase the limits on our natural resources and the uniqueness of sites, they are now opening up approaches to design – criteria and codes – that directly address the organic priorities.  More and more the results of our destructive development practices have led us to expect our in-born impulse for mastery to include – to be based on – “conservation” and restoration, sustainability and “design-with-nature.” We’re discovering it’s no longer a choice.

Sacred places    

An imagination is always poised to anticipate, and visualize scenarios for transcending obstacles found in the paths of desire.  And it is continually steered by an innate impulse to form alliances beyond a mate or companions to alliances with larger, super-natural forces, gods or spirits – the ones that seem, ultimately, to control nature, victory, prosperity, and survival itself.  As a response we have identified sites sanctified by some action of those greater powers and have created stories and rituals to link them into our daily lives. And in parallel, we apply every resource of a mind and body to build tangible settings where we can experience their presence, communicate with them and earn their favor.

The languages of built environments that are intended to evoke those kinds of spiritual experiences are as varied as the formal religions themselves. But their vocabularies – the forms and storylines – are ones that tend to engage all of the senses in ways that change body chemistries until we feel our inclusion in a selected, protected community – participating  in its “higher” wisdom – the mystery or the magic of the myths and structures of theology that explain how we fit into the cosmos.

Specifically, in sacred architecture, landscapes or a holy city, most often the languages have been refined to express a literal kinship with the gods by linking heaven to earth – with human lives at the interface. One line of our Western architectural and landscape heritage began with temples felt to be, in Scully’s words again, “a sculptural embodiment of the god’s presence and character…both of the deity as in nature and the god as imagined by men.”  And the sculpted “materials,” beyond wood, clay or stone, may be space and light or the living earth itself.  The point is they elicit intense feelings of connection – a scene firmly focused on a sacrificial altar or a portal to the higher world.  And so cathedrals and steeples soar, pyramids and stupas mimic mountains reaching into the sky, the domes of the Blue Mosque release an imagined ascent into the brilliant infinity of heaven – all into the power of “up,” beyond any possible human reach. 

The Pyramid Temple called “El Castillo”, reaching into the brilliant sky in the Mayan city of Tulum on Mexico’s Caribbean coast.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

From still earlier times, springs, grottos and groves of trees – with their roots-in-the-earth and branches-in-the-sky – and today’s gardens that mimic them, have often been felt as physical links to the “gods” of the sun and seasons of the fertile earth.  We have tended to find a protective holiness in the life-giving natural surroundings – and a link to movements of the moon, sun and stars – because we wanted that meaning to be there.

Drawing on other organizing networks of the brain, we incorporate the geometric order of squares and cardinal points, the perfection of circles and spheres, the golden section and harmonic proportions.  Neuroscientists are beginning to study why. But whether these are latent in patterns in a human mind or a revealed divine structure of the universe – or both – they have long been imagined as a language of forms and numbers with symbolic meanings that integrate the worldly places where “we belong” into greater-than-human power, knowledge, and presence.

In parallel, beyond light and vision, the ecstasy of an imagined divine presence is evoked by sound, scents, and touching or by verses from the Koran believed to bind humans and communities to Allah, or by movement – a pilgrimage, processions into sanctuaries, trances or dances that induce imaginative departures from the everyday world and arrival into a divine domain – into the ultimate refuge and prospect.  And priceless images in gold, stories in stained glass – symbols of wealth and skill – speak about “our” superior god-given abilities and victories and more important, the confident reciprocity, the security we have earned, through our loyal, submissive role in a true cosmic hierarchy.

These vocabularies of sacred places are interwoven with both classical and organic patterns – as they are in Wright’s Unity Temple or Fay Jones’ woodland chapels.  And the continuing widespread and deep attachment to gothic imagery seems likely to be related to its use of multiple languages – multi-coding – in classical geometric discipline, a sense of living organic structure, the unearthly light, and repeated invitations to ascend – in the words of St.-Denis’s Abbot Suger, rising “to the contemplation of the divine through the senses.”  Each shrine naturally uses sculptural forms and ornament derived from its human and nature-based origins, but the primary distinction, of course, is in the absolute priority – over all other design criteria – given to “correct” stories, symbols, and staging of coded rituals that together underlie the feelings of living at a superior level of consciousness. 

In other words, these are places where a language-of-a-built-environment – our native tongue – is able to evoke experiences of an overarching narrative or “order” for our “personal project” and mundane daily competition with each other or with nature.  And we respond – or expect to respond – with an experience of survival in the fullest sense: allying ourselves with powerful gods to win at war, prosper in peace, defy fate, and then live on after death.

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In the next two posts I apply the new humanism perspective to the spell-binding feeling we call “aesthetic experience.” 

Robert Lamb Hart is a practicing architect and planner educated at Harvard GSD and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a founder and a principal in Hart Howerton, a planning, architecture, and landscape design firm with an international practice out of offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, Park City, and Boston. He believes that the design professions have been falling behind in their understanding of one of the defining enterprises of the Modern revolution, the application of the maturing, fast-moving sciences of ecology and human behavior — and the compromised results are showing. 

Albrecht Pichlerwho drew the sketches, is a practicing architect and a principal in Hart Howerton’s New York office.

Read more posts from Robert Lamb Hart here.

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